Camp Swig artist dies at 81 created Holocaust memorial

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In 1967, artist Helen Burke was invited to join Camp Swig's art faculty for a two-week art festival for high school students.

A non-Jew born in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and raised on a farm in Chico, Burke so fell in love with Camp Swig that she ended up staying 20 years, living at the rustic site as the camp's artist-in-residence.

Following Burke's death April 12 at age 81, alumni and staff of the Reform movement camp recalled the indelible imprint she left not only on the woodsy Saratoga campsite, but on the hearts and imaginations of those she guided.

"She probably is the greatest hero that Camp Swig has ever had," said Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' Institute for Living Judaism, which encompasses Camp Swig and a newer UAHC camp, Camp Newman.

"She was a spiritual leader. A lot of young people were really touched by Helen's approach, which emphasized self-discovery in Judaism through artwork."

Burke died at home in Sacramento after a short illness. Among her many contributions to Camp Swig's landscape, she will likely be remembered most for the Holocaust memorial she helped conceive of and construct at the site.

A synagogue, the memorial blends past and present, paying homage to the vital Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust while at the same time incorporating the ambiance and image of contemporary American Jewish life.

The monument "doesn't depict the horror, but understands that the beauty of the community and the strength of the community is the continuation of the culture," said Shamy Noily, a San Francisco architect and former Swig staff member who collaborated with Burke on the memorial.

Over 15 years, some 1,500 campers contributed to the Holocaust memorial project, working either in mosaic or welded metal. Children learned the art of welding by designing small ritual objects they could take home.

They then welded reliefs that were attached to the memorial's centerpiece, an ark to which are attached artistic representations of Jewish holiday cycles, images of California redwoods and birds and pomegranates.

Burke then helped campers build two portable Torah arks. The first, a rotund metal ark adorned with symbols of Jewish holidays, was built to house a Torah rescued from the Holocaust. Burke called the second ark "The Little Ambassador," because of the traditional regal associations with the Torah.

"Her answer to the Holocaust was that the way to remember it is to rededicate ourselves to the values the Nazis tried to destroy," Noily said. "She really did that through her spirit and her teaching."

Though she wanted to be an artist since childhood, it was not until midlife that Burke turned to art as a career. In her early 40s, after raising three children, she enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she found herself particularly drawn to sculpture.

Following her graduation in 1961, she spent a year in New York exploring the center of the modern art world. Deciding that the hectic pace and fierce competition were not for her, she returned to the West Coast.

It was several years later that Rabbi Joseph Glaser, then director of the Northern California and Pacific Northwest Councils of the UAHC and of Camp Swig, saw Burke's work at an exhibit honoring the 10th anniversary of the museum at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

He invited her to teach for two weeks. The rest, as they say, is history.

In addition to her work at Swig, Burke designed Jewish ceremonial art for synagogues throughout the United States, Canada and Israel. She constructed the "Tree of Life" room at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel and the Aron Hakodesh at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto.

Her works have been displayed at the Skirball Museum of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and can be found in homes around the country.

Burke is survived by daughters Barbara Walther and Dorothy Jane McQueary and son Dan Burke.

A memorial service for Burke will be held at 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 8, at the Holocaust Memorial Chapel at Camp Swig. In celebration of Burke's life, Camp Swig is asking campers, staff and friends to bring Burke's artwork to the service and to offer written comments on Burke for a memorial booklet. These should be sent by May 15 to Camp Swig, 703 Market St. Suite 1300, S.F. CA 94103.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.